Establishing New Diet Habits: Understanding How Long It May Take

Establishing New Diet Habits: Understanding How Long It May Take
  • Many find it hard to make changes to their diet, giving up soon after starting.
  • However, nutrition experts say it takes time for new habits to form.
  • Breaking things into smaller steps will give you a better chance of achieving your goals.
  • Finding motivation and support are also important for success.

You know that making better choices like eating better and moving more can help you feel better and live a longer life.

Maybe you even set a New Year’s resolution for yourself to improve your diet and get more exercise. But here you are, a few weeks into your new lifestyle, and your resolve is already wavering.

Change is hard; there’s no doubt about it.

However, experts tell us that there are things we can do to improve our chances of making real, lasting changes. One is being aware that it takes time for your new behaviors to become habits.

Give your new eating style enough time to become a habit

Marie Kanagie-McAleese, MD, from the University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health, explained: “Some perspectives suggest it takes 21 days to create a new habit. Research on behavior change shows an average of 66 days for a behavior change to become a habit, with a range of 2-8 months.”

Kanagie-McAleese went on to say that the specific amount of time is really dependent on the individual as well as the changes that they are trying to make.

Other factors to consider are whether the changes are new to the individual or are simply building on existing behaviors.

“For example,” she said, “drinking more water each day will likely become a habit faster than incorporating a regular exercise routine.”

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Kanagie-McAleese also pointed out that it probably took years for you to create your current pattern of eating habits.

“It will take longer than a month to rewrite those old habit pathways in a person’s brain,” she said, “but it helps to break big change down into smaller, more manageable steps.”


Break your changes in eating habits into manageable steps

Brittany Placencia, a Nutritionist and founder of Simple Plate Nutrition, advises that the best way to make changes in your eating habits is to tackle one change at a time.

“When you have success with one change, you get a boost of confidence in tackling the next change,” she said. “It is not realistic to change your entire diet all at once and think it will stick long-term.”

One way to do this is to adopt an “addition mindset” rather than a “restriction mindset.”

“You want to figure out what you can add to your current diet to start a healthier path rather than cutting out foods altogether,” she stated.

“For example, begin with aiming to eat five servings of fruits and vegetables per day. That’s it. Don’t worry about other aspects of your eating yet. This is adding nutritious foods to your diet instead of a heavy focus on restricting foods,” she explained.

Placencia said that having an addition mindset can be helpful because you don’t feel like you are doing something wrong, which eliminates one of the common challenges that people face when trying to change their diet.

“Once your diet is balanced with more nutritious foods, it becomes easier and easier to enjoy less nutrient-dense foods like sweets occasionally,” she added, “as you have never felt restricted by them, and you can tell a difference in how your body feels after eating more nutritious versus less nutritious foods.”

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Kanagie-McAleese further suggests setting SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Realistic, and Time-based).

“Instead of saying your goal is simply to snack on more fruit, a SMART goal would be ‘I will choose an apple for my 3 pm afternoon snack on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday each week instead of a bag of chips, starting next Monday,” she explained.

Tips for success when changing your eating habits

In addition to setting SMART goals, Kanagie-McAleese offered three other tips for successfully changing your eating habits.

Identify your “why

“If you can connect your goals to deeper motivations, it becomes easier to stick with them,” she remarked. “For instance, eating healthier to prevent diabetes so you can live longer and enjoy your grandkids is more motivating than fitting into a pair of skinny jeans.”

Make it part of your identity

“Linking new, healthy changes to your identity makes the change more intuitive,” said Kanagie-Aleese. “If you want to eat healthy and improve your family’s health, it becomes easier when you identify as someone who prioritizes health and is a good role model for your children.”

Find your community

“It helps to have others that are interested in creating similar habits or who can support you and help to hold you accountable,” she said, adding that working with a certified health and wellness coach for a few weeks or months is one good way to do this

Takeaway Note

Eating better can help us feel better and live longer.

However, making changes to our diet can be hard, leading many to quit after a few weeks.

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Nutrition experts say it is important to give your new way of eating enough time to become a habit. On average, it takes about 66 days to form a new habit, but it can take up to 8 months, research suggests.

Breaking things into small, manageable goals makes it easier to create lasting changes.

Knowing your why, making your new eating habits part of your identity, and finding your community can also help.


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